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Herma Percy is a professor at the American Military University and a former professor at the Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute at Anne Arundel Community College. This column was written for the Baltimore Sun.
In the nation’s — if not the world’s — most widely watched murder trial, Judge Peter Cahill sentenced former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years in prison last Friday, following his murder and manslaughter convictions two months ago in the death of George Floyd.
The problem with this high-profile police trial is that if you squint the right way, Cahill’s sentencing will appear to some as “justice” and indication that “a change is gonna come.” But without police reform, Chauvin’s sentence will not translate into a structural change in policing in the 18,000 police departments throughout the nation.
While some were hoping the court would have sent a stronger message of intolerance toward police use of excessive force, abuse of power and general apathy toward basic human rights, the courts cannot — and should not — be relied upon as the branch of government to bring about meaningful police reform through verdicts and sentencing.
As Cahill said during sentencing, “the job of a trial court judge is to apply the law to specific facts and to deal with individual cases.” In other words: The courts will not solve the problem with aggressive policing. Real police reform must come from our legislators, police unions and the good cops on the force.
Unfortunately, far too many of us seek relief through the courts because our legislators are punting their responsibilities to fix the problems with policing. Families of victims of excessive use of force by police, like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, turned to the court system to get some relief, some sense of justice or some sense of accountability via civil cases. But even lawsuits that are won do not lead to real changes in policing in America and legal settlements, for the most part, are paid with taxpayer dollars, not by the police or their departmental budgets.
Police have “qualified immunity” from contributing to settlements for claims made for behavior occurring while they are on the job. So, while thousands of lawsuits are filed against cops every year, data showed that in fiscal year 2019 alone police-related lawsuits cost taxpayers over $300 million across the country. That’s taxpayer money that could have gone to help fund education, opioid crisis relief and public health crisis.
The joke on us is even funnier when you consider that, while taxpayers bear the brunt of paying to settle the cases of these officers’ misconduct, these officers routinely remain on the force, often without any discipline. Consider, for example, Derek Chauvin’s 19 years at the Minneapolis Police Department, during which as many as 18 complaints were filed against him, according to reports — higher than average.
Now, after his sentencing in the George Floyd murder, Chauvin faces federal prosecution on charges he violated the civil rights of a 14-year-old boy in 2017; he’s accused of repeatedly hitting the child with a flashlight and pinning the teen to the ground for 17 minutes, causing the boy to pass out. Yet, with all these complaints and cases and settlements, Chauvin, like many other bad cops, remained on the force.
Fortunately, the glaring spotlight on police behavior, lit by the Chauvin case, is shining a bright light into the dark crevices of police brutality and unnecessary use of deadly force and a broken criminal justice system. A day after Chauvin’s conviction on April 20, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. Then, congressional Democrats began pushing for national police reform.
Chauvin’s case may not be the celebratory win some want it to be, but it did spur movement. The ultimate win will come when local and national legislators and police departments themselves take actions that will lead to true reform. Then we can truly sing the songs of victory.